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How To Stop Suicide by Cop

A growing movement is training police officers not to kill citizens -- even when they seem to be asking for it.

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Going out in a 'blaze of glory'

Most people who have studied the phenomenon will tell you that, typically, suicide-by-cop scenarios fall into two categories: the “fleeing felon” who tries to escape police and, once cornered, decides he’s going to go out in a blaze of glory; and the “emotionally disturbed person,” who, like Seth, is looking for a way out of the pain of either mental illness or some kind of life failure.

The police encounter “emotionally disturbed persons” so regularly that, in cop lingo, they are called “EDPs.” Whether it’s a domestic call (a man with a history of depression has become violent because his ex won’t take him back), a workplace incident (an employee locks herself in a bathroom with a letter opener after being let go), or a schizophrenic homeless man screaming obscenities at shoppers at the local Dollar Store, police are often the first responders to problems involving our nation’s mentally ill. Situations involving the emotionally disturbed are volatile and can quickly spiral out of control, but most American police officers receive little specialized training on dealing with them.

When police do not properly understand the mentally ill — whether suicidal or not — the result can be dangerous to everyone. Officers who shoot citizens are very often haunted by the event. When the subject is suicidal, the anguish is exacerbated, because the officer can feel manipulated. According to Mohandie, about one-third of officers suffer severe post-traumatic stress disorder or depression after killing a suicidal civilian; some are so distraught they end up leaving the profession. It’s one thing to kill a “bad guy,” quite another to kill, as Louise Pyers puts it, “a sad guy.”

Despite the benefit to officers, training for crisis intervention teams and similar specialized groups is, by and large, offered only in departments with police chiefs who believe in it. According to Honburg, the director of policy and legal affairs for the NAMI, a lot of agencies are confused about crisis intervention training. “They say, we already do two or four hours on the mentally ill,” he says. “They don’t understand that CIT is about changing the culture — teaching them ways to respond that are safer for them and civilians.”

And though not a magic bullet, in some places where crisis intervention teams bloom, there is progress. Oklahoma City is one of those places.

Paul Hight was a Catholic priest who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, 2000, police came to his Oklahoma City apartment after neighbors called saying he was banging on doors and ranting. Hight confronted the officers with a kitchen knife; they shot him dead.

After the shooting, Paul’s brother Joe Hight wanted answers. Couldn’t the police have done something differently? Hight, an editor at The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City, arranged meetings with the chief of police and the head of the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I realized these people weren’t talking to each other,” Hight says. Like Pyers, he formed a nonprofit to bring the groups together and helped support the creation of a crisis intervention team in Oklahoma City. Today, the 600-officer department has 117 certified crisis intervention team members. Capt. Bob Nash says they aim to keep 20 to 25 percent of all officers certified, so that on every shift in every area, there is always a crisis intervention officer available when police encounter what Sgt. Keith Simonds calls “a sick consumer.”

Simonds co-taught a five-day crisis intervention course I attended in August 2008. The curriculum included everything from detailed information on the most current psychotropic drugs to site visits to halfway houses and psychiatric wards. But perhaps the most important thing officers learn in such courses is attitude adjustment.

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